The Curious Case of U.S. News and the High School Counselor Metric

Except for the nuts and bolts metrics used by U.S. News in its annual college rankings (grad and retention rates, class sizes) all of the other ranking categories receive strong criticism from education writers and the academic community. A category since 2009, the high school counselor rankings of colleges’ reputations fly a bit under the radar. But the fact is, they do appear to have a curious impact on the rankings.

A recent, excellent article about the rankings on the website Politico argues that the counselor rankings rely heavily on “guidance counselors from highly ranked high schools, while many high schools in less affluent areas have few or no counselors.”

According the the Washington Post, the rankings do include “surveys of 2,200 counselors at public high schools, each of which was a gold, silver or bronze medal winner in the 2016 edition of the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings.” U.S. News also surveys “the largest private independent schools nationwide.”

This already elite group of respondents is even more restrictive than it seems: “The counselors’ one-year response rate was 7 percent for the spring 2017 surveys,” according to U.S News.

Using the nuts and bolts categories and reputation rankings alone, as in this recent post, and separating out the peer reputation rankings from the high school counselor rankings, we can see the impact the counselor rankings have.

Using a sample of 60 national universities that are either in the top 50 nationally or have at least 7 nationally rated academic departments, we found that the high school counselor rankings of private colleges were about 11% higher than those of university peer rankings of the same colleges. (Twenty-five of the schools are public, while 35 are private.)

The fact is, high school counselor rankings on the whole run higher than those of peer reviewers. But counselor rankings of public colleges were only 6.5% higher than peer rankings.

The main question at hand is, do these (few) counselors have more useful knowledge about national universities that peer reviewers have? Peer reviewers have a response rate of more than 40%; this much broader response rate (in absolute percentages and, almost certainly, demographically) should yield a more accurate assessment from peers. (Even more accurate would be the academic departmental rankings, but those are not included.)

Related questions are, how much marketing information do counselors receive, and do they receive a disproportionate share from private colleges? Do they tour private colleges more frequently? Peer reviewers are not without biases, either, but they are not recipients of marketing information from other colleges. Finally, do counselors rely more on…U.S. News rankings?

Again using the same data set we cite above, a side by side comparison of peer and counselor assessments reveals the following:

–Of the 14 universities that rose in rankings at least two places, three were public universities (21.4%) while 11 (78.6%) were private universities. (The percentage of universities in the sample is 41.7% public and 58.3% private.)

–Of the 17 universities that fell in rankings at least two places, 14 (82.4%) were public while three (17.6%) were private.

Below is a table showing the side-by-side comparison. Please bear in mind that the rankings are our adjusted rankings, not the actual U.S. News rankings.

University Peer Only Peer + Counselors Dif +,-
Princeton 1 1 0
Harvard 1 1 0
Yale 1 1 0
Stanford 4 5 -1
Columbia 4 4 0
MIT 4 6 -2
Chicago 7 7 0
Johns Hopkins 8 8 0
Caltech 9 9 0
Penn 9 9 0
Northwestern 11 11 0
Cornell 11 14 -3
Brown 11 11 0
UC Berkeley 11 16 -5
Duke 11 11 0
Dartmouth 16 14 2
Michigan 17 17 0
Vanderbilt 18 17 1
Carnegie Mellon 18 21 -3
Notre Dame 18 17 1
Rice 18 17 1
Virginia 18 21 -3
UCLA 23 25 -2
Wash U 23 21 2
Georgetown 23 21 2
USC 26 25 1
Emory 27 27 0
Georgia Tech 28 30 -2
North Carolina 28 28 0
Tufts 30 28 2
NYU 31 32 -1
Wisconsin 31 34 -3
Boston College 33 31 2
Brandeis 34 33 1
Wake Forest 34 34 0
Illinois 36 38 -2
Florida 36 36 0
Boston Univ 38 36 2
UC Davis 38 38 0
UT Austin 38 46 -8
UCSD 41 43 -2
Washington 41 46 -5
UC Irvine 43 38 5
Case Western 43 43 0
Maryland 43 43 0
Rochester 46 38 8
Ohio State 46 50 -4
Northeastern 48 38 10
UCSB 48 46 2
Penn State 48 50 -2
Tulane 51 46 5
RPI 52 50 2
Lehigh 53 50 3
Purdue 53 55 -2
U of Miami 55 54 1
Minnesota 55 56 -1
Pitt 57 56 1
Texas A&M 58 58 0
Michigan State 58 60 -2
Indiana 58 60 -2
Rutgers New Bruns 61 58 3

 

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U.S. News Rankings, Minus the Financial Padding Metrics

The critics of the annual–and hugely popular–U.S. News Best Colleges rankings are vocal, large in number, well-armed with data, and mostly unavailing. Here is another attempt, based on the idea that the “financial” metrics used in the rankings distort the results. If Harvard has a zillion dollars, Harvard will have smaller classes than Mammoth State University with its meager funding per student. But why give Harvard credit for the zillion dollars and the smaller classes, when the smaller classes are the “output” that really matters?

So…the adjusted rankings below use the major non-financial metrics only: Peer assessment of academic reputation; high school counselor recommendations; graduation rates; retention rates; and class sizes. No acceptance rates or test score-related metrics are used. The impact of both are reflected in the output metric of graduation rates. (A separate post will discuss the curious disparities in high school counselor recommendations.)

Each of the universities on the list is in the top 50 in the 2018 U.S. News rankings with at least 7 ranked departments or has an aggregate academic department ranking of 50 or better across a minimum of 7 departments. The departments ranked are business and engineering (undergrad); biology, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, economics, education, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology (graduate level).

Therefore, even though department ranking data are not included in the adjusted rankings below, they are used as part of the eligibility requirements for inclusion.

Below are the adjusted rankings of 60 national universities, in the order of the adjusted ranking. Also shown are the U.S. News rankings for 2018 and the difference between the adjusted rankings and those of the magazine.  We used data from U.S News for the categories listed above, with the same weight assigned to each category. All categories were then standardized and aggregated. After the first fifteen or so schools, some of the disparities are striking, especially for the last half.

University Adj Rank US News Dif +, –
Yale 1 3 2
Harvard 1 2 1
Princeton 1 1 0
Columbia 4 5 1
Stanford 5 5 0
MIT 6 5 -1
Chicago 7 3 -4
Johns Hopkins 8 11 3
Penn 9 8 -1
Caltech 9 10 1
Brown 11 14 3
Northwestern 11 11 0
Duke 11 9 -2
Dartmouth 14 11 -3
Cornell 14 14 0
UC Berkeley 16 21 5
Notre Dame 17 18 1
Rice 17 14 -3
Vanderbilt 17 14 -3
Michigan 17 28 11
Georgetown 21 20 -1
Carnegie Mellon 21 25 4
Virginia 21 25 4
Wash U 21 18 -3
UCLA 25 21 -4
USC 25 21 -4
Emory 27 21 -6
Tufts 28 29 1
North Carolina 28 30 2
Georgia Tech 30 34 4
Boston College 31 32 1
NYU 32 30 -2
Brandeis 33 34 1
Wake Forest 34 27 -7
Wisconsin 34 46 12
Boston Univ 36 37 1
Florida 36 42 6
Illinois 38 52 14
Northeastern 38 40 2
Rochester 38 34 -4
UC Irvine 38 42 4
UC Davis 38 46 8
UCSD 43 42 -1
Maryland 43 61 18
Case Western 43 37 -6
UT Austin 46 56 10
Washington 46 56 10
UCSB 46 37 -9
Tulane 46 40 -6
Ohio State 50 54 4
Lehigh 50 46 -4
RPI 50 42 -8
Penn State 50 52 2
U of Miami 54 46 -8
Purdue 55 56 1
Pitt 56 68 12
Minnesota 56 69 13
Rutgers 58 69 11
Texas A&M 58 69 11
Michigan State 60 81 21
Indiana 60 90 30

 

Georgetown Prof on Finding Best Teaching, Mentoring: Consider Honors Colleges (with a nod to INSIDE HONORS)

Editor’s Note: In a piece in the Washington Post, Georgetown University Professor Jacques Berlinerblau, author of the book COLLEGE CONFIDENTIAL, offered several tips for prospective students who want a good return on investment, smaller classes, strong teaching, and undergraduate research and mentoring. Below are his comments on honors colleges, and a nod to our own book, INSIDE HONORS.

“Honors Colleges: In many ways an Honors College represents an institutional effort to deal with all the deficiencies of American undergraduate education alluded to above. These units (here is a handy guide) are usually carved out from larger schools. They may possess a “war chest” which lets them lure high-performing applicants away from highly ranked places where professorial buy-in will be minimal. In short, these administrations try to identify the best scholar-teachers on the Quad (regardless of their politics), place them in small classroom settings, and properly train them and incentivize them to completely commit to undergraduate teaching. That’s what all colleges should be doing. And that’s what all parents should be looking for.”

It would be hard to find a stronger endorsement of honors colleges.

“Reformers” Cite Productivity as the Reason for Higher Ed Cuts: Here’s What They Don’t Understand

After a years-long, bruising battle in Texas between the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems on one side and then-Gov. Rick Perry on the other, the two flagships have emerged more or less intact and relatively free of political meddling.

But that doesn’t mean that the overall fight to maintain quality in public universities is over. Far from it. Now comes news that Missouri and Iowa are joining Wisconsin in considering severe restrictions on faculty tenure, including the elimination of tenure tracks for new faculty hires.

Here are the four main factors involved in this ongoing battle:

  1. Real or exaggerated fiscal problems in the states;
  2. Ideological interference for partisan political purposes;
  3. Attacks by “reforming” governors on the fundamental purposes of public higher education;
  4. Disregarding what is unique about universities, while trying to turn them into business focused on “productivity.”

If far-right politicians in Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin and like-minded officials  across the nation succeed, then here is what will happen to public universities:

  1. They will be unable to compete for top faculty, continue to lose quality and prestige, and be relegated to secondary status.
  2. The purported vocational goals of the reformers (more business and STEM grads who can earn higher salaries) will in fact be undercut when public university grads find that their degrees are not regarded as highly as they are now.

Since the Great Recession, most states have struggled to keep abreast of legitimate public needs. In the early years of the recession, states enacted severe cuts in higher education. Often, the most severe cuts occurred in states with very conservative governors who saw an opportunity to leverage the recession into a continuing attack on the liberal arts and a concomitant turn toward vocationalism in higher ed.

But as the economy has rebounded, only some states have slowly begun to increase higher ed funding. Others, such as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri, are renewing attacks on higher ed.

Here partisanship and ideology enter the picture. For the extreme right, public education should be almost entirely vocational, and “real” education should occur in the more expensive, private colleges, and mainly for those who can afford them. The fixation on private governance even drives these advocates to favor for-profit private “colleges” even though support for these dysfunctional businesses drives up federal loan losses.

Clearly, not funding public higher ed and reducing quality in public colleges is antithetical to the essential purposes of state universities: providing both access and quality to students in their states.

Moves to eliminate tenure are an example of the tone-deafness of some politicians when it comes to the differences between universities and the corporate business world.

The need to fire inept or irresponsible employees in the corporate world is a given. Almost always, such dismissals are unrelated to philosophical and ideological issues or to the expression of differing, even seemingly bizarre opinions.

The firing of a faculty member can come down to objective performance issues; but far more than in the case of firing a business employee, it can also be a punitive act against free expression or the result of a misguided bias against certain academic disciplines.

Of late, those disciplines–the humanities, mainly–are probably the very disciplines that need to be supported in an era of “fake news.” Do humanities and liberal arts majors find more high paying jobs than, say, chemical engineering graduates? No, but do engineering graduates need significant exposure to the humanities? The answer is yes, even if, or especially if, the engineering students disagree with what the humanities offer. At least they are more likely to think about why the disagree.

It must be said, however, that some alleged reformers see no value in having engineers–or any student, for that matter–do much critical thinking beyond that required by their (preferably) vocational major.

Arguments grounded in the need for “productivity” and the general uselessness of academic research have been an abiding feature of far-right attacks on public higher ed.

Yet there is a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that not only describes the uniqueness of universities as institutions but concludes that they are in fact rational actors in making decisions about faculty pay in relation to both research and teaching loads. They are productive, but productive within the very special context of a university.

The paper does not disagree that sometimes research professors are rewarded more than those who lack a research pedigree. But in the end, “prizing research output over teaching doesn’t necessarily affect educational quality.”

According to an excellent summary of the research by Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed, “the paper seems to dispute assertions that higher education spending — at least on instruction — is wasteful or inefficient.”

The authors note that “Departments in research universities (the more so the more elite) must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses.”

And one of those goals is to maintain or enhance academic credibility. Flaherty writes that the “authors predict that because ‘scholarly reputation and output’ at research-intensive institutions are shaped by largely by research, highly paid faculty members within a department ‘do relatively little teaching, on average.’ And whatever teaching they do ‘has relatively high consumption value, either directly or as an input into research.’”

 

 

 

 

How Alive Are the Liberal Arts in Honors Programs?

The short answer: very alive.

After an extended period during which more and more students have felt the need–regardless of personal interest and aptitude–to major in business, engineering, or computer-related fields, the liberal arts, especially the humanities, have faced declining enrollment.

The impact that this trend has had on personal growth and enlightened participation in civic life is evident, given the tone and outcome of the presidential election.

In the meantime, several prominent public universities have endured attacks on their humanities departments and commitment to learning for learning’s sake, most notably UT Austin, Florida universities, and, very recently, UW Madison. Most states have dramatically reduced financial support for their universities; some regents have used the real or manufactured budget crisis as a pretext for attacking non-vocational disciplines.

But the liberal arts and, yes, the core humanities that are essential to the liberal arts, have survived in public honors colleges and programs. Some students express resentment that, in order to be in an honors program, they must take a series of interdisciplinary seminars and electives in the humanities. Under pressure from parents or highly focused on their chosen vocational discipline, they want “to  get on with it” and reach a point where they can start making real money and pay back those student loans.

This is understandable. But honors educators know that almost every bright student is in many ways unformed and searching for paths of meaning in their lives. One course in history, or philosophy, or literature, or maybe in religious studies or film, can guide a student toward a lifetime of serious inquiry, self reflection, and greater compassion for others. These and other courses in the liberal arts reinforce the application of informed judgment to facts that are often contradictory or in flux.

Consensus is emerging that for many students, “We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.” Indeed, this is one of the two or three major advantages of honors programs. STEM majors who otherwise would take few liberal arts courses (and an extremely small number of humanities classes), must take them as members of a university-wide honors college or program.

But one other major–business–could likely benefit even more from greater exposure to the liberal arts and, again, to the humanities

Recent research shows that “critical thinking,” measured after adjusting for entrance test scores, shows the greatest gains for students in the liberal arts.  Engineering and technology students have high raw entrance test scores and strong critical thinking ability, but after adjusting for the effect of the high test scores, their critical thinking skills are relatively lower.

Business majors do not receive high raw or adjusted scores in critical thinking. Given that a plurality of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in business subjects, this is a matter of significant concern.

English is the discipline most offered by honors programs. This is so because many of the required English classes have a heavy writing component, often associated with the study of rhetoric. In these classes the humanities and vocational mastery come together in a way, for the most successful and most fulfilled professionals often have outstanding communication skills and a heightened sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of others.

So what are the “liberal arts”? The answer to this question varies, but here we will include the following disciplines, all of which are traditional core offerings in liberal arts colleges (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences):

Humanities: English, history, philosophy, fine arts, foreign languages, religious studies, film, classics. Sciences: math, biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Social Sciences: sociology, anthropology, gender studies, psychology, communications, political science, economics, and geography.

(One can see that many of these can be, and often are, “vocational” in themselves.)

Using the above as our “liberal arts,” we used data gathered for our most recent book, Inside Honors, which included 4,460 honors sections. Of these, we found that 59% were in the liberal arts, not counting interdisciplinary seminars, which accounted for another 26% of sections. Most of these seminars had a humanities focus, so about 85% of honors sections were in the liberal arts.

By discipline, English had the highest percentage of sections, even when sections in business, engineering, and technology are included. Math and business disciplines combined had about the same number of sections as English.

The STEM disciplines are strongly represented, however, accounting for 25% of honors sections. (But the science and math sections counted here are also part of the overall liberal arts group.)

Engineering and technology, considered separately, make up  8% of honors sections. Admittedly, the “regular” courses in these disciplines are usually rigorous enough in themselves.

Not all of the humanities are strongly represented, however, with classics, film, and religious studies combined counting for only 1.4% of honors sections. In fairness, the classics do feature prominently in many interdisciplinary seminars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Average U.S. News Rankings for 123 Universities: 2012-2019

Updated September 10, 2018, to include new U.S. News rankings for 2019.  Listed below are the yearly rankings and overall average rankings of 123 national universities that were included in the first tier of the U.S. News Best Colleges from 2012 through 2019. There are 61 public and 62 private universities. The list below not only shows the average rankings over this eight-year period but also lists the number of places lost or gained by each university.

U.S. News has changed its methodology, and there are some significant changes, especially after the top 30-35 places in the rankings. Major gains for Florida, Florida State, Georgia, most UC campuses.

“New this year, we factored a school’s success at promoting social mobility by graduating students who received federal Pell Grants (those typically coming from households whose family incomes are less than $50,000 annually, though most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000).” This has shaken up the rankings quite a bit.

More on the methodology changes in a future update.

As a group, the private universities have had an average increase in the rankings of .18 places, while the public universities have had an average decline of 3.6, demonstrating what we have observed in the past–public universities are, in general, not on an upward trajectory in the rankings. And this is a step backward compared with the last set we published, covering the years 2011–2018, but still better than 2010–2017, when public universities lost an average five places during that eight-year period while private colleges gain two places.

While we appreciate the massive amount of data that the U.S. News rankings provide on class sizes, grad rates, retention rates, and even selectivity, on the whole the rankings fail to evaluate efficiency (the number of students who receive a high-quality education at a relatively low cost) and should not use selectivity and wealth as metrics.

One reason for the sudden rise in a school’s ranking is increased “gaming” of the rankings. Some institutions, public and private, but mostly the latter, have geared their marketing and merit aid to increase the number of applicants and lower their acceptance rates accordingly. This makes them more “selective” and helps to improve their rankings.

The U.S. News rankings not only over-emphasize the metrics related to a university’s financial resources but also, especially in the last five years or so, reward selectivity when, in fact, the results of the selectivity are already considered. Why should Stanford be rewarded for having an acceptance rate of 5% and be rewarded for having high graduation and retention rates, both of which are largely the result of selectivity. Using test scores as a factor in predicting what grad rates should be is fine, as is rewarding or penalizing schools for exceeding or not meeting such predictions. But the high scores themselves and the low acceptance percentages merely duplicate what is more properly measured by outcomes.

Here are the historical rankings, the average of each school across eight years, and the increase or decline of each school from 2012 through 2019. The universities are listed in order of their average ranking across the years.

Here is the list.

US News 2012--201920122013201420152016201720182019Avg RankChg 2012
to 2019
Princeton1111111110
Harvard112222221.75-1
Yale3333333330
Columbia444445534.1251
Chicago545443333.8752
Stanford565445575.125-2
MIT567777535.8752
Penn587898887.625-3
Duke1087888988.252
Caltech5101010101210129.875-7
Dartmouth111010111211111211-1
Johns Hopkins131312121010111011.3753
Northwestern121212131212111011.752
Brown151514161414141414.51
Cornell151516151515141615.125-1
Washington Univ141414141519181915.875-5
Vanderbilt171717161515141415.6253
Rice171718191815141616.751
Notre Dame191718161815181817.3751
Emory202020212120212220.625-2
UC Berkeley212120202020212220.625-1
Georgetown222120212120202220.8750
USC2324232523232122231
UCLA252423232324211922.756
Carnegie Mellon232323252324252523.875-2
Virginia252423232624252524.3750
Wake Forest252723272727272726.25-2
Tufts292828272727292727.752
Michigan282928292927282728.1251
North Carolina293030303030303029.875-1
Boston College313131313031323831.875-7
NYU333232323236303032.1253
William & Mary333332333432323833.375-5
Brandeis313332353434343533.5-4
Rochester353332333332343333.1252
Georgia Tech363636363634343535.3751
Case Western383737383737374237.875-4
UC San Diego373839373944424139.625-4
UC Santa Barbara424141403737373038.12512
UC Davis383839384144463840.250
Lehigh383841404744465343.375-15
RPI504141424139424943.1251
UC Irvine454449423939423341.62512
UW Madison424141474144464943.875-7
Illinois454641424144524644.625-1
Boston Univ535141424139374243.2511
U of Miami384447485144465346.375-15
Penn State454637484750525948-14
Tulane505152544139404446.3756
Washington 424652485254565951.125-17
Florida585449484750423547.87523
Northeastern625649424739404447.37518
UT Austin454652535256564951.125-4
Pepperdine555457545250464651.759
George Washington505152545756566354.875-13
Ohio St555652545254545654.125-1
Yeshiva454647485266948059.75-35
Fordham535857586660617060.375-17
Maryland555862625760616359.75-8
SMU625860586156616359.875-1
Georgia 62636062615654465816
Syracuse625862586160615359.3759
Connecticut586357585760566359-5
Purdue626568626160565661.256
WPI626562685760615961.753
Pitt585862626668687064-12
Clemson6868626261666766652
Brigham Young716862626668616365.1258
Texas A&M586569687074696667.375-8
Minnesota686869716971697670.125-8
Rutgers686869707270695667.7512
Virginia Tech717269717074697671.5-5
Baylor757775717271757874.25-3
American827775717271697874.3754
Iowa717273718282788977.25-18
Delaware757575767579818978.125-14
Michigan St717273857582818578-14
Stevens Inst Tech887582767571697075.7518
Col School of Mines757791887582758080.375-5
Indiana758375767586908981.125-14
UC Santa Cruz757786858279817079.3755
Clark94837576757481667828
Miami Oh908975768279788982.251
Marquette828375768686908983.375-7
UMass Amherst949791767574757081.524
Tulsa7583868886868710687.125-31
TCU979282768282788083.62517
Denver828391888686879687.375-14
Binghamton8889978889868780888
Vermont829282858992979689.375-14
Alabama757786889610311012995.5-54
Colorado 949786888992909691.5-2
San Diego979291958986908590.62512
Drexel8883979599969410294.25-14
St. Louis88921019996969410696.5-18
Auburn8289911031029910311598-33
Stony Brook1119282888996978091.87531
Florida St1019791959692817090.37531
NC State101106101958992818093.12521
Missouri90979799103111120129105.75-39
New Hampshire1011069799103107103106102.75-5
Tennessee101101101106103103103115104.125-14
Iowa St94101101106108111115119106.875-25
Oklahoma10110110110610811197124106.125-23
Nebraska10110110199103111124129108.625-28
Univ at Buffalo11110610910399999789101.62522
Loyola Chicago119106101106999910389102.7530
Oregon101115109106103103103102105.25-1
Pacific101106112116108111110106108.75-5
Kansas101106101106115118115129111.375-28
Dayton101115112103108111124127112.625-26
Illinois Tech11111310911610810310396107.37515
South Carolina111115112113108107103106109.3755
UC Riverside9710111211312111812485108.87512
Michigan Tech111120117116123118124136120.625-25
Catholic119120121116123124120129121.5-10
Clarkson119115121121115129124102118.2517
Arizona124120119121121124124106119.87518
Howard1111201421451351241108912222
Colorado St128134121121127129124140128-12
Kentucky124125119129129133133147129.875-23
Arizona St132139142129129129115115128.7517
Arkansas132134128135129135133147134.125-15

Update No. 2: It’s Complicated–the 2016 Edition of Honors Ratings and Reviews

By John Willingham, Editor

Honors colleges and programs are complex. If you think about it, how could they not be? Take a (generally) large public research university with many thousands of students, sprawling campuses, hundreds of professors, and the huge football stadium somewhere close at hand–and then create an honors program, or even a college within a college, a hybrid for high achievers who might have gone elsewhere.

Any book that attempts to rate or review honors programs can skim the surface and use only a handful of criteria that are relatively simple to assess, or the book can go inside honors in order to explain the more subtle differences. My first book on honors programs was, in retrospect, simplistic. The second was much more in-depth, but did not capture or explain precisely the many types and actual sizes of honors classes, especially sections that are “mixed” or “contract” sections. (A mixed section has honors students as well as non-honors students, the latter often majors in the discipline; in a typical honors contract section,  only one or two honors students receive credit for doing work in a regular section.)

The third book will be the best, and I hope will do justice to the complexity of honors education. But beware: the new book will somewhat complicated itself.
(And getting it out is complicated, too. I am hoping for mid-September. There will be 50 in-depth rated reviews, plus either 5 or 10 summary reviews, time permitting.)

A big reason involves a prospective student who has received an acceptance letter from the prestigious first-choice private college or public elite–but the need-based aid falls short. The “safe” public university, typically in-state or nearby, now receive more serious attention. It is at this point that the honors program or college can incline a student one way or the other.

It is obvious that prestige often plays a large role when it comes to first and second choices of a college. Now with the need-based aid falling short, the cost of prestige has become a problem for the prospective student. If the safe school does not have the same prestige, then what exactly does it have that would is most important to the student, prestige now set aside? Here is the time that parents and students look at the nuts and bolts.

Of course cost is still a huge factor. I will have a much-improved section on merit scholarships at each honors program.

How about small classes, the types of classes, the range of honors classes across disciplines? The data I have this time around is far better than I was able to receive for previous editions; the ratings will be much more precise for class size, type, and range.

But this is the main reason the new book will be somewhat complicated itself. In order to define these types of classes, there are additional categories: Number of Honors Sections; Honors Sections in Key Disciplines (15); Level of Enrollment–the extent to which honors students remain active in the programs; Honors-only class sizes, and the percentage of these actually taken; mixed class sizes, with the same information about the percentage of students; and contract sections, also with the percentage.

How about honors housing? Many prestigious private colleges have residence facilities that are outstanding. Now I will report not only the amenities for honors housing but also the availability of that housing. The rating will now show the reader the ratio of honors dorm space to the number of first- and second-year students in the program.

Did I say ratio? Yes, and some of the ratings can veer into wonkish territory. So…please be patient with the details, for they are where the decisions are made. The student who loves and thrives in small classes needs that detail, and the additional information about mixed and contract classes. The student who wants honors seminars and dozens of honors classes in his or her discipline, will focus on those details; the student who doesn’t have time for seminars will want the straight-from-the shoulder program. And the students who not only desire high-quality dorms but actually want to know if there is space in those dorms, will focus on that detail.

For many students and families, the merit aid and total cost will be the deciding factors. Notice that I did not say “detail.”

While the idea that an honors program “offers the benefits of the liberal arts experience along with the advantages of a major public research university” is generally true, the ways in which honors programs try to meet this goal vary greatly. The new book will be the best effort yet to light up the ways honors works in public institutions.

Inside Honors: What 9,000 Class Sections Can Tell You

By John Willingham
Editor, Public University Honors

When parents and prospective students (not to mention college junkies) want to “know” about a college, what they want most is to get a sense of what it’s “really like,” the inside story so to speak.

Most college rankings focus only on what can be measured: test scores, class sizes, financial resources, selectivity, grad and retention rates, the salaries graduates can receive. Some non-numerical ratings–the famous Fiske guide, for example–focus less on formal measures and do offer narratives that provide impressionistic glimpses of campus life. Taken together, rankings and good rating guidebooks provide much excellent information.

But surely a big part of the “what’s it really like” story has to be not only the graduation requirements but also the actual classes and coursework required for graduation. How many courses are available in your student’s proposed major? Are there interdisciplinary seminars? How about access to mentors and support for undergraduate research, both more likely if small classes are offered.

Yes, you can read about courses if you work your way through undergraduate catalogues. In some cases there will be course descriptions. But what you probably won’t find in catalogues are the number of sections and the actual enrollment in each one. What I have found during five years of analyzing public honors programs and colleges is that one cannot come close to understanding the real nature of these programs without poring over the actual class sections–and course descriptions.

When the first edition of A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs appeared in April 2012, I realized that it was a tentative step in the process of trying to analyze and report on the most important characteristics of honors programs in prominent state universities.

What I failed to understand was just how “tentative” that first effort was.

The original emphasis was on honors curriculum and completion requirements, and the overriding idea was that the more honors classes a student had to take, the more that student would benefit from what I called “honors contacts” at the time.  Honors students would have more contact with professors in smaller honors classes; they would find a ready cohort of serious students like themselves; they would have far more research opportunities, again allowing more contact with professors.

If honors programs sought to provide an Ivy or liberal arts education in the midst of a large public university setting, then the extent of honors contacts within that larger context would measure how well the program was meeting its mission.

I continue to believe the curriculum completion requirements are at the heart of an honors program or college. But those requirements only quantify the total number of credits a student must earn to graduate; they do not speak to the range of honors courses offered in each academic discipline, or to how small the classes really are, or to the type of class experiences that are available (seminars, lectures, labs).  The credit requirements do not yield an impression of how creative a program is or how interesting its courses may be.

In other words, the emphasis on the bare curriculum completion requirements does not get at the heart (some might say guts) of an honors program.

Now, with more than 90 percent of our data for the new 2016 edition in house, we have begun to explore the inside of honors education at 60 public universities, which means a somewhat tedious analysis of data for approximately 9,000 honors class sections.

Here are examples of what we learn from this work:

  1. How to develop basic classifications for the honors programs and colleges. The courses tell us whether a given program is a “core” program, a “blended program,” or a “department-based” program. A relatively small program with small, honors-only seminars along with relatively few set science and math requirements is a core program. Generally larger programs (some with more than 6,000 students) can be “blended” or “department-based.” If blended, they will have a large number of all-honors seminars, perhaps one-third to one-half of the total honors courses available, and the remainder of courses will be more narrowly defined by the academic departments. Department-based programs might offer a few seminars but offer most honors sections through the academic departments. If a blended or department-based program has a lot of “mixed” class sections (honors students plus non-honors students in the same sections), we can then pass along this information to readers, who may or may not care that many sections are mixed.
  2. How to asses the size of class sections. We have actual enrollment levels for the 9,000 class sections we review. This will allow us to tell readers about the overall average class size for all honors sections, including mixed sections which tend to be larger. From this, readers will gain an idea of how much close interaction with “honors contacts” is likely.
  3. How many honors classes are “contract” or “add-on” sections. Contract sections require an honors student to sign an agreement with the instructor specifying the extra work the student will do to earn honors credit. Most contract sections have only a very few honors students. The same is generally true of “add-on” sections, but these are somewhat more formal in that they are regularly offered term after term and have more established requirements that honors students have to meet to earn honors credit in a regular section. Readers may or may not like the idea of this type of section. Are they less rigorous? Is the flexibility they allow worth it? Our data indicate that in our data set of 60 programs, these types of classes may be about 25 percent of total honors sections. Please note that about two-thirds of programs offer contract or add-on sections for credit, but only five or six offer them on a large scale.

So…to know what “it’s really like really like” in honors program A or honors college B, you have to put yourself in the classroom, so to speak, and get a feel for the characteristics and subject matter of those class sections. Do you want the feel of a small, closely-knit program with a well-defined curriculum and rigorous seminars? Do you want the intimacy of seminars but also the nuts and bolts offered by a broad range of departmental honors classes? Or, are you mainly interested in having as many class choices in as many disciplines as possible, even if some of your classes will be mixed and relatively larger than the all-honors sections.

Once we have finished our “classroom work,” we should be able to give you a better sense of what 60 prominent honors programs and colleges are, in fact, like.

Florida, Maryland, and Washington Will Soon Use Only the New Coalition App

Three prominent public universities–Florida, Maryland, and Washington–will begin using the application process developed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (CAAS), a recently formed consortium of more than 90 leading public and private colleges and universities.

Our guess is that the three schools will opt for the new process in summer 2016.  (Note: the University of Washington never used the Common App previously.)

Note: A list of all public universities listed as CAAS members as of March 9, 2016, is below.

According to a Scott Jaschik article in Insider Higher Ed, member schools “are creating a platform for new online portfolios for high school students. The idea is to encourage ninth graders begin thinking more deeply about what they are learning or accomplishing in high school, to create new ways for college admissions officers, community organizations and others to coach them, and to help them emerge in their senior years with a body of work that can be used to help identify appropriate colleges and apply to them. Organizers of the new effort hope it will minimize some of the disadvantages faced by high school students without access to well-staffed guidance offices or private counselors.”

To qualify, as of now, for membership in the CAAS, a school must have a six-year graduation rate of 70 percent or higher. Several prominent public universities that qualify have not yet joined, among them all of the University of California institutions, UT Austin, and UW Madison.

Jaschik writes that the UC campuses have not joined because of present concerns about the ability of community college transfers to use the process effectively. UC schools have strong and highly successful articulation agreements with the state’s community colleges.

UT Austin questions the fairness of the new process, at least in its initial form. “Associate director of admissions Michael Orr said UT did not apply to the coalition because of criticisms of the programs, including the coalition’s failure to consult with high school counselors,” according to Jameson Pitts, writing for the Daily Texan. 

“The argument within the community … has been that there is a concern that students with means will be the ones that will be able to take advantage of that opportunity the most,” Orr said. He did not rule out the possibility of joining the Coalition if concerns about fairness can be resolved.

Several voices in the higher ed community have opposed the Coalition, saying that students are already over-focused on preparing for college admission and that the new approach will favor more privileged students.

Our question is this: If the new process is designed to help students who cannot afford college counselors and lack effective guidance in their schools, how will the students find out about the process in the first place and learn to use it to good effect?

Whatever the possible shortcomings may be, the CAAS has gained the membership so far of the 36 public universities listed below. It is important to note that only Florida, Maryland, and Washington have decided to use the CAAS process exclusively. The other schools listed below will, as of this date, use either the Common App or the CAAS process.

Clemson
College of New Jersey
Connecticut
Florida
Georgia
Georgia Tech
Illinois
Illinois St
Indiana
Iowa
James Madison
Mary Washington
Maryland
Miami Ohio
Michigan
Michigan St
Minnesota
Missouri
New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Ohio St
Penn State
Pitt
Purdue
Rutgers
South Carolina
SUNY Binghamton
SUNY Buffalo
SUNY Geneseo
Texas A&M
Vermont
Virginia
Virginia Tech
Washington
William and Mary

University of Texas Chancellor Opposes Top 10 Percent Admission Rule

As a former Navy Seal and admiral in command of all U.S. Special Operations forces, UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven spent three decades serving and leading the most elite military forces in the world. He has made it clear that he now wants the state flagship to join the best of the best among the nation’s public universities.

But after seeing the system flagship turn away thousands of the state’s elite students because they did not make the top 10 percent (actually 7 percent at UT Austin this year) in the graduating classes of the state’s most competitive high schools, the chancellor sees the automatic admission rule as a major obstacle to keeping the brightest students in Texas–and at UT Austin.

“Candidly, right now what is holding us back is the 10 percent rule,” McRaven told state higher ed leaders recently.

The motives of the Top 10 proponents are certainly worthy–to increase the enrollment of high-achieving minority students at UT Austin. But what makes the rule (sort of) work is that it is predicated on the fact that many of the state’s high schools remain almost entirely segregated. Sometimes this is because an entire region is heavily Latino (the Rio Grande Valley); but elsewhere the segregation in urban centers is based on race and income.

Many of these high schools are among the least competitive in the state. Graduating in the top 7 percent of a high school that offers no AP or honors sections and that has low mean test scores is far different from reaching the top 7 percent of a graduating class of 800 students that has 70 National Merit Scholars.

What can happen to suburban students at very competitive schools is that an unweighted high school GPA of 3.9 (high school rank top 11 percent) and an SAT score of 1440 might not make the cut at UT Austin. Three-fourths of the school’s admits are from the top 7 percent pool; the other 25 percent of admits face a pool that is as competitive as many of the nation’s most selective private colleges.

And, McRaven would say, too many of these students are going out of state, where it costs them more and where they might remain rather than return to Texas. Moreover, the chancellor believes the rule is part of the reason that UT Austin, despite having a stellar faculty, is not rated as highly as it should be among the nation’s public universities.

“Candidly, I think we need to take a hard look at some of the ways that we address higher education, particularly at our flagship program. Your flagship, your number one university in the state of Texas is ranked 52nd on the U.S. News & World Report. To me that’s unacceptable. A lot of things drive that. The 10 percent rule drives that,” he told higher ed leaders.

While he did not specify exactly how the rule contributes to lower rankings, the graduation rate metric used by U.S. News might be lower for UT Austin in part because of the relatively lower standards in many poor and mostly segregated high schools. (It is possible that the chancellor also sees the large size of UT Austin as another issue.)

If the chancellor can find a way to maintain or improve minority enrollment and do away with the Top 10 rule, he might prevail. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not scrap the university’s current holistic admissions policy for students outside the top 7 percent, he might have a better chance; otherwise, his task will be as difficult as many he faced as a military leader.

“[The Top 10 Rule] is a very very sensitive topic,” State Rep. Robert Alonzo told McRaven. “It is a topic that we have discussed at length from all different aspects, and I would hope that we have put it to rest for a while.”

McRaven was undeterred. “I am a new chancellor, so I am going to take that opportunity to re-open that look again,” he said. “Because my charge is to make us the very best, and I think there are some obstacles to doing that.”

Alonzo replied: “Well, I accept the challenge, sir.”

Stay tuned, for this could be a big battle indeed.